Five months after Philadelphia shut down restaurants because of the coronavirus pandemic, city officials are expected to announce this week whether indoor dining can resume in September.
The stakes are high: Throughout the country in recent months, new outbreaks have been repeatedly tied to indoor gatherings such as house parties, church services, and especially crowded restaurants and bars.
Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said lifting the city’s ban on indoor dining, which has been repeatedly extended, will depend on trends in new confirmed cases of the virus. Recent data are mixed, he said Tuesday, with an increased number of cases last week compared with the week prior, but a steady rate of positive test results.
Many restaurant owners are eager to seat guests indoors, citing concerns about the weather-dependent nature of outdoor dining — and the need to do enough business to survive. But others are hesitant, and plan to stick to takeout and outdoor seating regardless of what the city says.
“I think there’s this line everybody’s trying to walk, which is, how do you revive the economy safely?” said Paul Levy, president and CEO of the Center City District.
Indoor dining has been allowed in surrounding Pennsylvania counties since late June — with restrictions, including limiting indoor seating to 25% of a restaurant’s capacity.
Mayor Jim Kenney, who has often enacted stricter regulations than apply in the rest of the state, has said all reopening decisions will hinge on what’s best for public health. Kenney has often deferred to Farley.
“We are looking at the case rates and the trend in case rates, whether they’re rising or falling,” Farley said. “We’re looking at our contact tracing information to see where the disease is spreading.”
The Kenney administration outlined a plan in May that set goals of less than 80 new cases of COVID-19 per day or a less than 4% testing positivity rate in order to reopen the city’s economy. The city has not hit those targets to date, but businesses have nonetheless been permitted to reopen with restrictions, including gyms, barber shops, and retail. In the week that ended Saturday, Philadelphia had an average of 122 new cases per day and a 4% positivity rate.
If Philadelphia does allow customers inside bars and restaurants, Gov. Tom Wolf’s 25% capacity restriction, as well as a requirement that customers order prepared food in order to sit indoors, would still apply. City officials also have the latitude to enforce additional requirements.
Even with those restrictions, “a little bit is better than nothing,” said Teddy Sourias, who owns several Center City, restaurants including Bru Craft & Wurst, Finn McCools Ale House, and Tradesmans. Sourias said the weather and the 10 p.m. cutoff time have made outdoor dining difficult.
“We’re doing our part as restaurants to keep the restaurants clean and the distance and the masks on,” he said. “The ones that are playing by the rules, we shouldn’t have to sit closed.”
For Zach Morris, owner of Bloomsday Cafe in Head House Square, the risk of spreading the virus is not worth reopening for indoor seating. He said he will continue only with takeout and outdoor tables, spaced more than six feet apart.
“I think it’s sort of playing with fire,” Morris said. “If you open your business to indoor dining … people are still going to be maskless, they’re still going to move around the space. You can’t contact-trace everybody. You can’t have everybody come in and sign a waiver.”
Chuck Moran, executive director of the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association, said he’s worried about corner bars, which are more common in Philadelphia than elsewhere in the state and are at particular risk of closing for good. They often lack outdoor seating, he said, and the requirement to purchase a meal with a drink presents an additional challenge.
Moran said he hopes Kenney eases restrictions.
“He’s doing what he believes is right, but we have to learn to live with the virus, and we have to learn to balance everything,” Moran said.
Restaurants have been attracting indoor dining customers this summer in the Philadelphia suburbs, said Ben Fileccia, director of operations and strategy for the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association.
“You have some guests that are quite comfortable going inside,” he said. “I ran some very tight restaurants in my day.… People would always complain that they were piled on top of each other. You don’t see that anymore.”
Fileccia said he would like Philadelphia to open indoor dining — and he would also like Wolf to lift the capacity restriction on all restaurants in the state. Wolf initially had a 50% capacity limit on restaurants, but tightened it to 25% in mid-July, as new cases of COVID-19 increased statewide.
“A lot of people I know just aren’t even opening with the 25% rule because they know that’s really nothing,” he said. “We really feel that the important part is the social distancing side. So if you social distance a typical restaurant, you’re going to end up at about that 50% anyway.”
Levy, of the Center City District, said reopening would bring jobs back to the city. But he cautioned that Philadelphia must be careful that reopening doesn’t lead to new outbreaks, as occurred in Florida, Texas, and other states this summer.
“If they decide not to allow it, it’s disappointing but understandable in the context of safety,” Levy said. “And if they decide to open, it’s a great boost for restaurants, but all restaurants need to make sure they’re taking all appropriate safety measures, because we don’t want an upsurge and a return of this virus.”